01/09/2013 01:27 am ET Updated Mar 10, 2013

What Is the Science of Happiness?

The phrase "the science of happiness" refers to a new field of social science called positive psychology. Contrary to popular belief, it is not "positive thinking" or self-help, but a broad empirical field of research and application worldwide. According to one of its pioneers Chris Peterson, simply put, positive psychology is the study of those things that make life worth living. While traditional psychology is mitigative -- helping us get less of what we don't want and fix the things that are wrong with us -- positive psychology functions constructively in helping us get more of what we do want, and making ourselves better, happier people. The executive director of the International Positive Psychology Association has called it the "psychology of building."

The science of happiness came about through the evolution of psychology. Its key co-founders are psychologists Dr. Martin Seligman and Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, though it has roots in many disciplines, including emotion research, moral psychology, humanism, cognitive behavioral therapy, and the humanities, especially philosophy.

Early in his career as a psychologist, Martin Seligman developed the theory of learned helplessness, which outlines the response that follows when we believe our actions don't matter. This later led him to explore the idea that if we could learn to be helpless, we could also learn to be optimistic. This pioneering work in learned optimism underscored the role that our cognitive processes play in our own happiness. Positive psychology officially began in 1998 when Seligman made it his mission as President of the APA to turn the attention of psychology toward those elements of life that contribute to human flourishing. Through this prioritization of turning an empirical eye towards the good side of life, he was paramount in the creation of positive psychology as we know it. Co-founder Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi had spent years working on creativity and intrinsically motivated activity. He is most well-known for developing the construct of flow, or deep immersion in an activity (noticeably, the feeling when "time stands still" and you are "one with" an activity). Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi defined positive psychology as a "science of positive subjective experience, positive individual traits, and positive institutions."

The field of positive psychology operates from the premise that we ought to acknowledge both the light and the dark sides of life. It focuses on positive elements of life such as character strengths, positive emotion, resilience, purpose, positive relationships, and creative achievement. It strives to create healthy institutions, joyful and engaged individuals, and flourishing communities. It has been said that positive psychology requires a "metaphysical orientation toward the positive," a stance that the good in life is just as real (and worth measuring) as the bad. While traditional psychology has been highly successful at making life better for those of us suffering from negative conditions in our lives, positive psychology maintains that now is the time to turn our attention to matters that exist on the positive side of neutral, in the realm of what is best about life. It urges us to adopt bettering through effort, and to turn our attention to the optimization of the human experience. It does not deny the existence of the negative parts of life, but argues for a deep exploration of the upper reaches of human experience.

Theories about happiness go back to before the time of Aristotle, and even today, there are many theories on what constitutes well-being and happiness. Some are focused on the society level (exploring issues of justice, for example), while some focus on hedonic pursuits, or psychological health. Of note in this context is Seligman's latest theory of well-being, which focuses on the individual, and goes by the acronym PERMA. Its constituent elements each contribute to well-being, are pursued for their own sake, and can be measured independently from the others:
  • Positive Emotion (including the common notion of happiness)
  • Engagement or Flow
  • Positive Relationships
  • Meaning and Purpose
  • Accomplishment

Major ongoing theoretical developments like that of PERMA are reflective of the relatively young state of positive psychology and part of its rapid evolution. Its research and application spans the domains of human life: family, school, work, spirituality, health, community, government, medicine, military life, etc. Specialized areas of interest such as positive health and neuroscience, positive education, positive psychology coaching, mindfulness, and positive business are at the forefront of what has become a movement in social science. The collective hope and goals are that of greater human flourishing, increased psychological resilience, well-being across the lifespan, and of course, happiness.

For updates in the field of positive psychology and more information related to the science of happiness, check out Positive Psychology News Daily, the International Positive Psychology Association, and follow me below.

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